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On experts and amateurs

When Stephen Hale blogs about something, I usually stroke my chin and nod approvingly. But there’s something in his latest post – about favouring expert skill over gifted amateurs, the troubles me quite a lot.

In practice, if we need graphic design, we either need an in house graphic designer to do it or we need to pay a supplier to provide those skills; if we need data science, we either need an in house data scientist or we need to pay a supplier who has those skills; if we need content, we either need an in house content designer or we need to pay a supplier to do it for us.

What we don’t want (in my opinion) is enthusiastic amateurs having a go at graphic design, data science or content design, because that’s when we’re at our least expert and our least effective.

That’s why, as we reshape our department, I’ve been making the case to continue our drive to bring experts into the department, alongside our drive to mainstream new skills in all staff. Because I think we’re at our best when we’re at our most expert.

I understand the point: digital is mainstream, expectations have rightly risen since I was doing this stuff in government, and people who tinker with free online tools or small-scale projects don’t help overcome the damaging perception that digital engagement in particular is a bit of a waste of time compared to proper things like media relations and policy analysis. The civil service has historically had a culture of favouring generalists and something of a glass ceiling for specialists, and that’s what the Minister was taking a swipe at as he moved sideways into his next generalist job. (Yay for PPE!)

I worry that making content design, or user research or community management something specialist which requires ‘experts’ makes digital skills feel less core, less attainable and ultimately less impactful than if we encouraged a bit more enthusiastic amateurism.

Stephen’s at the leading edge of developing digital capability in the wider organisation, so I don’t want to put up a straw man: clearly, there are particular skills and sometimes formal training needed to practise some digital disciplines really well; and other things which it’s easier to do from a standing start. The best writers and researchers and developers have been at it for years and don’t stop learning. But there’s satisfaction, understanding and achievement to be had in having a go, in appreciating why things are as they are, in knowing enough to scratch your head while you explain a problem to someone more knowledgeable than you.

When Michael Gove recently and notoriously said that “people in this country have had enough of experts”, I don’t think he was simply being anti-intellectual. I wonder if he was arguing that too many ‘experts’ overstate their true power out of hubris and ego – and there’s been plenty of that in government IT before and since GDS. Even genuinely skilled folk can come across as condescending and tribal, and that’s not a good way to improve things at scale.

At my kids’ school, the focus is on ‘mastery’ of maths concepts – the ability to do something creatively, fluently and to a high standard. For me, I think achieving that kind of mastery or professional growth in the workplace needs opportunity, encouragement and feedback.

Effective feedback in particular is what big organisations like the civil service find hard. I’ve frequently avoided tackling poor performance around me as a manager and it’s easy to do that in larger teams. With some help, it’s something we’ve been focussing on as a small team over the last six months, both to help in the short term with how we feel about work and clients, but in the longer term as a way for us all to grow professionally. As a boss, I certainly don’t want things to be done badly, but I often find expertise and passion in unexpected places around the team and in our clients. We need to use the term expert carefully, to avoid missing out on some of that potential.

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And yes, it is the Helpful business model I suppose, as a place business and public sector organisations turn to for help with digital. But our big focus now – and how we’re swimming against the tide in a way – is on helping clients to do digital for themselves: demystifying what seems complex, building confidence amongst those far behind the cutting edge, trying to answer every ‘Please could you…’ Zendesk ticket we get with a ‘Sure, and here’s how to do it next time…’

So I suppose I’m saying I don’t have a problem with government of gifted amateurs, so much as with amateurs who don’t know it, don’t seek help and don’t get better. Organisations need specialists, and there’s plenty of specialist skills in digital. Let’s not build a wall around them.

  1. Perhaps there’s a difference between specialisms and specialists. It’s important to understand that user research, content design, data science and all the others are real disciplines with skills, tools and techniques which need to be learned and practiced if they are too be done well. That that is not always recognised or respected is part of what triggers a strong reaction asserting professionalism. But it’s entirely possible to respect the specialism without asserting that everybody who works in it has to be a lifelong specialist. On a show of hands in a room full of user researchers a few weeks ago, half identified as DWP people who happened to be user researchers, and half as user researchers who happened to be working at DWP. That felt pretty healthy to me.

    • Absolutely – and I suppose DWP has helpful scale in which it’s possible to grow as well as hire specialists. In a couple of the teams I’ve seen there, there seems a particularly good culture to help people learn digital skills and nurture enthusiasm and aptitude, too

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